David Mathews has stories in Solstice Shorts: Sixteen Stories about Time (Wednesday Afternoon was one of the judges’ five favourites), Liberty Tales, Shortest Day, Longest Night, DUSK and Story Cities.
David is interviewed by Jeremy Dixon, author of In Retail. Jeremy also has poems in The Other Side of Sleep, Liberty Tales, Dusk.
JEREMY: You have a couple of stories in the forthcoming Arachne Press book No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book. Could you tell us about them, what was the inspiration (apart from spiders!) and how did you develop the idea into a story? And how did you know when it was finished?
DAVID: I already had a spider story, set in space, outer space. I’d made a couple of kind of newsletters – ‘Stories of sorts, all short’, I’d called them – and one had a spider in a heroic role, if you like. I know next to nothing about spiders, but I like how hugely varied they are in appearance and, especially, how they work, as it were. So after I’d written my new spider story for Cherry, I risked sending her this old bit of nonsense too.
As for the one I wrote specially, I was keen to avoid anthropomorphising spiders. I don’t know how a spider thinks. What’s their consciousness? No idea. But how might a spider behave in a situation where things could go well or badly? Get the reader to wonder. Spider doesn’t. Spider just does her thing. I did learn how spiders are adapted to detecting vibration, and that ability gave me some real spideriness in the story. The thread, you might say. Sorry.
And you asked when it was finished? When all the changes I was making were reversions to earlier words or phrases. That and Cherry’s deadline, of course.
JEREMY: What influence, if any, does your personal history have in writing a short story?
DAVID: No big single way, but in lots of small ways, I suppose. For example, I was a work psychologist, and part of the job was to describe people’s work in very exact and concise ways. The habit of choosing words for that exercise is bound to come through in making short stories. Maybe it was a good training. Trouble is, it also makes me rather intolerant of novels. Most of them seem to me to need a damn good edit, though I’ve read some brilliant exceptions recently.
And then, where I come from matters. I grew up in Barry, not far from where you now live, Jeremy, and many of my stories are set in Wales. Can I put my finger on the precise difference that that makes? Not just like that, but I do feel that the English suffer from a kind of imperial condescension towards Ireland, Wales and Scotland. I’m also in many ways quite shy, which is not a problem for writing as such, but it’s there. So, for example, how much does, for example, my sympathy for my characters stem from Welshness, or from having been a psychologist – or is it just me?
JEREMY: Has the lockdown had an effect on your writing or your writing routine?
DAVID: Not too much. And in any case, ‘routine’ is rather a strong word for what I do. ‘Habit’ would be a better word. I do miss being in cafés, and miss walking whenever and wherever I like, for the relaxation and time away from the keyboard. And casual conversations. And overhearing people talk.
JEREMY: Can you share any details of what you’re working on currently?
DAVID: Two stories. One about a search for perfection. A woman trying to make the perfect pot. Then there’s Mrs Cadwallader, landlady in the Vale of Glamorgan, and fierce opponent of three boys, becoming young men, who feature in several stories. There’s one in Liberty Tales. Via the boys I’ve been pretty hard on Mrs C, and I feel I should make it up to her. Her dead husband was a sailor. In May and June 1966 there was a seaman’s strike, and that becomes her moment. Working title, ‘Mrs Cadwallader rides again’.
And something that will probably end up as a chapbook. Thomas à Becket was killed in Canterbury Cathedral 850 years ago come December. I’ve drummed up a few friends to write some ‘Beckets’, stories between 1118 and 1170 words long, inspired by the drama, the man and all that followed, like pilgrimage and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Working title ‘Thomas à Becket’s Cat’, so you can see it’s not meant to be pious or devotional. I’m wondering whether the cat should be called Julian.*
JEREMY: What advice do you have for any new and aspiring writers who may be reading this?
DAVID: I should be asking you that, on account of your booklet on writing tips, Allow Your Pen to Lead the Way? I can’t imagine that anything I could say would be of any use to anybody. But – and this is dodging the question of course – show me a story, and I would certainly have something to say. I am wary of generalisations, because we learn more from specifics. When I was in my first job, back in the dark ages, my boss called me in about the first significant report I had put in. On her coffee table was my document, covered in red ink. Seeing my face, she laughed. Don’t worry, she said, if it was no good, I wouldn’t have done that. Perhaps that’s advice in a way.
JEREMY: You have a history of working with Arachne Press as a publisher, are your experiences with them different to other publishers you have worked with?
DAVID: Two stories in particular would not have been what they are if Cherry had not got her hands on them. ‘Mouse’, my Longest Night story was decent, but Cherry’s guidance made it sharp. I wouldn’t have got there on my own. I’ll tell you a secret, if you want to know where stories come from. Read Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, then read ‘Mouse’.
And then there was the first story of mine that Arachne published, Wednesday Afternoon (in Solstice Shorts, Sixteen Stories about Time). I’d got the story sorted. It’s based, very, very loosely, on a real, long-term liaison. But I had told the story from my perspective, reporting what someone else told me. Cherry cut straight through that. She made my informant the narrator, and introduced a device to give credibility to her knowledge of the intimate details of the two lovers – the narrator and the woman of the couple routinely sharing a glass of Muscat. I did the rest, of course, but what a difference that made.
And then Cherry asked Carrie Cohen to read it. I’d never heard anyone read a story of mine in public before, so on the day I was pretty anxious. It was a thrill. And it was hilarious. And she’d found in the story nuance that I had barely recognised myself.
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you. Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary!
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.
Watch Carrie Cohen read ‘Wednesday Afternoon’ at Solstice Shorts 2014 on YouTube
*Is this a reference to Julian, the Arachne Press chief editor? [ed]